The Split Capital of Cyprus
The split capital of Cyprus. Lying at the crossroads of three continents, where east meets west, the island of Cyprus is a cultural meze in its own right. A delicious combination of Turkish and Greek cultures created by a north-south divide. Indeed, the split capital of Nicosia will undoubtedly whet the appetite of any traveller eager to sample the whole platter in a single day.
Described as the last divided capital, Nicosia was split by sectarian conflict back in the 1960s. The United Nations ultimately brokered a peace deal in 1974, although today the Turkish and Greek communities remain separated by what’s known as the ‘Green Line’. That said, visitors and locals alike can easily cross the border at designated checkpoints. The pedestrian crossing at Ledra Street provides the most convenient place from which to explore both sides of the city with the minimum of fuss. With hundreds of people crossing between the north and south daily, this is a far cry from the barbed wire barriers that were once a blot on the Cypriot landscape.
Home to roughly a third of the North Cypriot population, the northern half of Nicosia, or Lefkoşa to the Turkish Cypriots, is an eclectic mix of old and new. The old town is a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys, dotted with ancient architecture and pavement cafes. As with its southern counterpart, most of Lefkoşa’s modern buildings and administrative machinery lie outside the Venetian walls.
Of the various entrances into the walled city on the northern side, Girne Gate is the best preserved, its inscriptions a reminder of Venetian, Ottoman and British rule. This is also the best spot to start a walking tour of North Lefkoşa, although many tourists head straight for the Büyük Han (the Great Inn). Built on the orders of the first Ottoman Governor of Cyprus in 1572, this was a practical lodging for medieval city traders. It has since been used by the British as a prison, and later to house destitute families. Today, having been beautifully restored, this 16th-century merchant’s inn is used as a cultural, social and retail centre. It is a vibrant collection of shops, restaurants and small businesses that do its origins proud. It is also an ideal spot to sit in the shade of its courtyard, wiling away the day whilst enjoying a cool drink.
Another popular historic attraction is the Büyük Hammam (the Great Baths). This handsome stone building creates the optical illusion of rising from the ground, although over the centuries the ground has in fact risen up from its original medieval level as successive layers of building have taken place. Converted by the Ottomans from a Lusignan church, the front portal is still the main entrance to a fully functioning piece of Cypriot history. These fabulous Turkish Baths are open to the general public and are a unique way of sampling Turkish Cypriot culture first hand.
Once refreshed, leisurely cross over to the southern side of Nicosia, known to the Greek Cypriots as Lefkosia. A political and financial centre, not just for the republic and the Eastern Mediterranean, but for the whole of the Middle East, Lefkosia is less dependent on tourism than anywhere else on the island. That said, there is still much to do and see in the southern half of the city.
Within the Venetian walls of the old city, you will find the Laika Geitonia traditional quarter. Pedestrianised during the 1980s, this area to the east of Ledra Street is a maze of souvenir shops, boutiques, bars and restaurants. For an alternative take on Lefkosia, the Leventis Museum provides a fascinating introduction to the capital’s diverse past, and for the best views of the city, head to the Shacolas Tower, the tallest building in Lefkosia. Once used by Greek Cypriots to peer over the buffer zone into the north, albeit now rendered redundant by the pedestrian crossing, the views from the tower’s observatory are still remarkable.
From the tower, escape the hustle and bustle of downtown Nicosia, but moreover, from here you can truly appreciate the cultural complexity of the last divided capital in the world.